Memories of Nanjing

Memories are funny things aren’t they?

We gather so many millions and millions of them throughout our lives and somehow they all get stored away in our mind’s filing cabinet. Some things we want to remember – a couple of mine include standing awestruck in the empty chamber in one of Giza’s great pyramids or for something more mundane, just remembering the name of the person I met half an hour ago. Others we’d rather forget. Most retreat and end up buried beneath the constant and never-ending deluge of our life. Yet sometimes, like yesterday, they pop up when least expected.

Blogger (and published author) extraordinaire Linda Janssen writes Adventures in Expatland and I was over there yesterday checking out the latest piece in her Expats A to Z series, C is for Committed. The post was pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Linda’s writing: thoughtful, insightful and generous. But what I didn’t expect was the evocation of a memory so powerful, it took me right back to a summer’s evening in a Nanjing street almost nine years ago.

I had been in my own version of expatland for about 18 months. It had been a hard induction – initial expectations of money, home and job had fallen well short and my family and friends watched from afar – concerned, helpless and confused – as I struggled with both the practical and emotional minefield of building a new life. And whilst I knew deep down that here was where I was meant to be, there was another little voice in my head whispering, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself? You had a good life, it would be easier/far more sensible to give up and go back to Australia.’

At this point in time, I’d found myself in a job that promised so much and fairly quickly became a huge disappointment but I did get a couple of amazing opportunities to travel in the ten months I was there and one of these trips was to Asia.

I’d spent a week with our local rep visiting suppliers in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. We’d managed a casual evening in Macau, another more digestively challenging evening as guests of a supplier in Shanghai, had visited villages and great cities and had been flown and driven around for six days. On the final day, we crossed the Yangtze River for our final supplier meeting and then spent the afternoon heading towards Nanjing in order to get on our respective flights home the following morning.

With the pressure of the week finally over, my colleague suggested a stroll through the city and a ‘local’ dinner so fortified by a drink at the hotel bar we set off. Nanjing was full of colour and life and my local took great care of me, showing me the sights and encouraging me to share several local dishes at a tightly packed restaurant filled with the curious clacketty-clack of Chinese chatter.

As we wandered back towards the hotel, I felt a whole world away from my troubles back in the UK.

We passed a few art and craft stalls and finally stopped where a small crowd had gathered. Drawing closer, I could see a young woman surrounded by rolls of bamboo parchment, an array of small ink pots before her: she was finger-painting these extraordinary Chinese scrolls and selling them for about £10. I stood and watched her for a while, fascinated by her complete immersion in her task, wanting to imprint the moment of simplicity, purity and happy endeavour firmly in my mind.

Eventually, I asked for one to be painted for me and as I looked on, a delicate picture of ebony branches with tiny bright red flowers came to life beneath her deft fingers. It was beautiful and I was so delighted at the prospect of taking this little piece of Nanjing home with me. But even more poignant was her explanation as she presented me with my finished scroll – the tree she had chosen to paint for me was one that slept and struggled through the cold dark months of winter and then would blossom in a vivid testament to its commitment to both survive and thrive in spite of the elements.

It hung on my wall in my tiny Kingston flat for six years before getting irreparably damaged during my move to Finchley. But Linda’s post yesterday brought it back to me, as vivid and delicate as the night it was created. And when I shared this story in response to her post, she asked me to share it with you.

I’ve built a life I absolutely love here in London and it feels like the seed that was planted ten years ago has finally blossomed. But I will never forget that moment in the dim light of a Nanjing street when, in fractured English, I was inspired by the recognition and acknowledgement of all my heart was feeling by a complete stranger.

 

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